A Totally Biased Review: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Despite a handful of stumbles, this sequel more than lives up to its predecessor

We knew it was coming before the first one was even out. After the hullabaloo leading up to the original Avengers flick, it was more than apparent Marvel wasn’t going anywhere. They’re a runaway locomotive. And ain’t nothin’ stoppin’ the train now.

Age of Ultron picks up after the events of The Winter Soldier. The Avengers have teamed up to right some leftover wrongs, while coping with the loss of SHIELD and trying to maintain peace in a world increasingly rife with turmoil. They’re tired, weary and worn out. Cue Tony Stark’s Peacekeeping program which is jump-started thanks to a recent acquisition the team has made while cleaning up some trash. And, as they so often do, things go very, very wrong.

Luckily for us, that us.

Joss Whedon has guaranteed himself a job for the rest of his natural life. By shouldering the burden of not only assembling (see what I did there?) a team of superheroes and giving everyone something to do so successfully not just once but twice now, he’s proven his ability to handle positively Herculean amounts of work. I can’t wait to listen to him talk about how exhausted he was throughout the shoot during his commentary on the impending BluRay release. All joking aside, he’s done a job no one thought he could and has done it twice now, all while being forced to make this film into part stepping stone towards what Marvel has in store, namely the conflict at the heart of Civil War. It functions brilliantly while doing so and doesn’t leave the viewer feeling slighted or teased while delivering on expectations built by the first film. Even without the majesty of seeing Earth’s Mightiest  Heroes come together for the first time, this film still stands tall alongside it’s predecessor, which in and of itself was the most difficult thing to overcome. I’d say that’s earned him a gold star.

This is a very important part of this film and why everything works on such effective levels: everyone is given something to do. Some of it works better than others, yes, but nonetheless. Every one of the team members has their moment, and in most cases moments, to shine. Tony grapples with the responsibility and guilt of creating and unwittingly unleashing the very force they’re out to stop. Cap is more the born leader he ever was and, finally, isn’t just the punching bag he was more relegated to in the first one. All around every team member has found their role and executes as a specific member with a specific task. Iron Man is recon with his flight mobility. Thor is the tip of the spear with his immense power. Hawkeye and Black Widow are finally equal members that act as cleanup and support for the more super powered members. This helps add to the cohesion of the team, in particular how their powers interact and complement each other, and provides context for their growth since the last team-up flick. It’s also important to state how genuinely funny the film is, in the general Marvel tone. It never takes itself too seriously, and in that irreverence it always manages to find that spare moment to sneak in a perfectly placed and timed joke.

It’s worth noting that two things within the team, in particular, work especially well and for very different reasons. First, like it or not, the somewhat forced and arbitrary romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner is a necessary evil, without which both characters would have nearly nothing to do and would lack any sort of character arc, being simply action roles that show up and fight when the script calls for it. For my money, I found nothing wrong with it and felt it gave just enough for me to not write it off as totally unnecessary. Second, it’s absolutely worth taking the time to remark on how stunning Jeremy Renner is as Hawkeye in his 3rd appearance as the character. After being written off as Loki’s “pawn” in the first film after Joss couldn’t find anything for him to do, he’s given a much deeper, well-written and layered role that resonates powerfully as the human element on the team. His lines are profoundly emotional and thoughtful and helped by a nuanced and almost desperate but controlled performance that sets him aside and helps him stand out among his peers. His quip about “mind control” is one of the best laughs in the film.

Marvel has made a name for itself with strong casting, and it continues in spades here. Even in a very brief role, the always phenomenal Andy Serkis shines and makes mincemeat of his acting cohorts with a character that is fully realized and engaging, complete with crooked gold teeth and a grotesque underbite. The “non-mutant but totally mutant” twins of Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, complete with knock-off Dracula accents, are effective as tools that create interesting and dynamic action, but a quick monologue detailing their backstory and hatred for certain billionaire playboy philanthropists is all we get as far as who they are. When the story dictates, their motives change, mostly because the story dictates their motives need to change. Scarlet Witch’s power is cleverly utilized at one point, though, to flesh out the backstory for certain characters. To say any more would invoke the Spoiler Gods wrath. Only Ultron, channeled here by the magnificent James Spader, stands out from everyone else. Anyone familiar with his recent work on the hit The Blacklist will see Spader oozing through the metallic plates and glowing machinery that makes up the villains look. His voice rolls and sways with smooth confidence and impending cruelty and he’s as funny and charismatic as Loki and more powerful than the Winter Soldier, making a case as the best villain Marvel has offered up yet. Unfortunately, I can’t say much about Paul Bettany’s role without giving anything away. I’ll try to get away with simply saying his character is a huge surprise, with a fantastic, otherworldly and truly distinct look, and that he’s not at all what I had expected going in. Very interesting things Marvel is doing here, and as usual, absolutely pitch perfect casting.

The film is not without its blunders, however, and for a piece of this magnitude we can only be grateful there aren’t more of them. The first of which I’ve already addressed. The forced romance simply will not be so easily overlooked for everyone. The characters could have been given something else to do, but doing so may have introduced more into an already extremely dense and busy plot. The second is the story’s use of deus ex machina. Twice. Probably as necessary as the romance storyline, for simplicity and keeping the story moving, but I found it more difficult to simply overlook because it felt like the writing team just couldn’t find another reason for ABC character to do XYZ action. Without giving anything away, they probably couldn’t have written different solutions without bogging the plot and pacing down considerably, but it still comes across as cheap and mildly WTF-ish. Nick Fury’s reappearance both leaves questions unanswered (where has he been?) and simultaneously promises exciting things going forward, but acts as another moment of deus ex machina. Despite these shortcomings, it’s entirely awesome to see him and anyone who’s followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far will find their inner nerd giggling with delight when he shows up again.

That same inner nerd will find a lot to be delightful for. There’s one shot of the super team tearing into enemy forces and wielding their powers in and out of a wild, minutes-long thrill ride rivals even “the shot,” now legendary for its prolonged, overly wrought superhuman action showcasing everyone fighting through New York. That’s just the first shot of this film. And it barely lets up from there. From the Hulkbuster to desperately duking it out with Ultron to the climactic battle that closes the film, there’s a steady escalation to the action that builds into such a monumental crescendo that words really just can’t quite capture it. It’s nice to see Marvel taking things that one step further and really allowing the action to unfold on an almost Biblical scale, recreating action so ridiculous and epic that it really could only have previously existed on the pages of a comic. The Hulkbuster battle, in particular, is exceptional in its intensity and the visceral nature of its action while also establishing the setting for the forthcoming Black Panther. However, the penultimate action sequence pales even the most glorious action ever captured on film thus far, and suffice it to say that Ultron’s diabolical plan is both brilliant, terrifying and wholly unique, smacking of ancient calamities that would only be dreamt up by the young, undeveloped mind of a newly born artificial intelligence.

This sort of freshness is sprinkled liberally through the entire plot, and despite approaching the New Trilogy Star Wars level of CGI set creation and overuse of green screen, it doesn’t quite go over that edge. Over 10 films into the MCU and we’re seeing the heroes in the sorts of locations we’ve never seen them in before, and despite something as arbitrary as location, it still gives the action a different vibe and feel. It’s one of many things that helps add to the sense that this film will be considered to stand alongside The Avengers as an equal.

Of course, the advancement of special effects since the last film was released is another of those things, and it’s with great relish that I say the film is chockfull of convincing effects and beautiful, dynamic imagery. Every hero is familiar and established by now, meaning that the action for each character can be pushed further and further to its limits, giving way to greater and more epic spectacles. The Hulk, of obvious and particular note, is especially worthy of praise as both an achievement of visual effects and as the realization of a character. It’s one thing to create something that’s interesting to look at and another thing to give that thing a soul. There’s real, primitive, primordial pain and anguish in the Hulk’s eyes at times, and despite his ferocity he’s made into a very sympathetic character. If not for Hawkeye, the Hulk may have won “Most Improved Avenger” this time around, as it’s made clear that the Hulk is just as afraid of Banner as Banner is of the Hulk, and his character is left in a very interesting place at this story’s conclusion.

The format in which I viewed the film was IMAX 3D, and I feel it’s safe to say that if you don’t see it in at least IMAX, then you’re doing yourself a disservice. The booming, nearly obnoxious sound matches the intensity and sheer scope of the visuals, and makes the movie less of a viewing endeavor and more of an actual experience, as cliché as that sounds.

It’s just a simple fact: if you’ve enjoyed the MCU at all, have ever enjoyed a superhero film, or love over the top and ridiculously overwrought action, then this film was made for you. The conclusion leaves several characters in unexpected places and gives them something exciting to do moving forward while acting as the perfect stepping stone for what’s to come and setting up the sequels that Marvel already has us salivating over. Even the few shortcomings the story holds ain’t stoppin’ the train now.

PROs and CONs+ Just as fun, funny and enjoyable as the first
+ Functions on its own and hypes what’s next
+ The Avengers, both old and new
+ #AllDatActionDoe
+ Ultron!
– Way too much deus ex machina
– Unnecessary
story elements

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